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Lincoln’s top water officials aren't worried about summer demand despite five wells still out of service at the city's wellfields near Ashland.

Nearly four months after historic Platte River flooding forced the city to restrict water usage, the city's water remains safe to drink and production is steady.

But major fixes to fully restore the wellfields' capacity are still another year from completion, Lincoln's Assistant Director for Utilities Donna Garden said this past week.

The city can produce at least 92 million gallons a day, which is well above July's demand for about 50 million gallons per day, she said.

Emergency operations undertaken immediately after the flood restored as much capacity as possible, she said.

In and around the river, the city has 44 wells drawing water from an aquifer underneath the Platte River. Two plants in the Ashland complex treat the water, then send it to Lincoln through three water mains.

Though the Nebraska National Guard had sandbagged areas to protect the wellfields, the Thomas Lakes levee breach wiped out power to portions of the system there, restricting production, depleting water reserves and prompting then-Mayor Chris Beutler to mandate water conservation March 17 for three days.

During the mandatory water use restrictions, Lincoln cut its usage by 3 million gallons a day from its average of 35 million gallons a day winter usage, as residents ate off paper plates, flushed less often and drove past closed car washes.

Exceeding 500-year flood levels, the Platte River's most consequential hit to the water system was the destruction of one well, which affected three other wells.  

“As it eroded, the whole wellhouse kind of crumbled down and moved with the water flow,” Garden said.

Although five wells are still out of service, the city has been able to keep up with demand.

"We are meeting all demand for water to Lincoln with plenty to spare," a recent report on the system's status said.

Lincoln also stores water in underground and above-ground tanks, and can hold about 100 million gallons in reserve in Lincoln and about 10 million gallons in Ashland.

Federal Emergency Management Agency officials, who would provide a lion's share of funding for the system's repairs, inspected the city’s water facilities last week.

And the Lincoln Transportation and Utilities Department has sought funding for improvements designed to prevent similar infrastructure failures.

In an interview last week, Garden updated the status of the city’s work to restore the infrastructure around the wellfield washed out by the engorged Platte River.

And she highlighted examples of how public works officials adjusted on the fly — at times literally — to conditions in Ashland so water production continued and quality was assured.

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“All the different ways they could figure out to rearrange things” was the unsung but crucial work in this disaster, Garden said. “They kept things going.”

The teams, led by Lincoln Water System Superintendent Steve Owen and Assistant Superintendent of Operations Eric Lee, redirected water from non-operational wells by changing valves. They also used air boats and helicopters to access the area and troubleshoot how the city could boost production.

Corbin Harms, who oversees the electrical power supplied to the system, went up in planes to pinpoint where floodwaters had torn down power lines and locate untouched power poles that could be used to reroute electricity to the wells, she said.

Rick Roberts, who oversees wellfield maintenance, knew the river so well, “he could predict what was going to happen,” she said.

John Keith, laboratory manager in Ashland, had the foresight to also ensure water testing was conducted throughout Lincoln as well as the water drawn through the well system, she said.

“Those five guys and their teams are the ones that really saved the day and kept water coming to Lincoln,” Garden said.

Emergency contracts paid for immediate repairs needed, such as restoring road access. 

Since the flood, wells in the north wellfield have been running on an alternate electrical feed as construction continues on the original power feed.

The loss of the north wellfield had a ripple effect on three other wells that used the same transmission main. 

A fifth well, operating on the city's island in the river, lost its transformer.

It appears intact but needs further inspection, she said.

The city's insurer, FM Global, will cover expenses based on its policy. FEMA will pay up to 75% of the cost of disaster restoration work and the state covers up to 12.5%, leaving Lincoln on the hook for at least 12.5%, Garden said. 

The city of Lincoln on its own and jointly with the Omaha Public Power District have notified the Nebraska Emergency Management Agency of its intention to seek hazard mitigation funds to pay for improvements, such as reinforcing electrical poles or burying power lines feeding the wellfields, which would prevent the destruction from a similar disaster.

Requests for proposals on the design, engineering and construction phases to restore the wellfields and mitigate future risks were issued in June, and officials expect to award those contracts later this month.

Seeking federal disaster relief following the Salt Creek flooding in 2014 and 2015 is a guide for the city's efforts this year.

"We've been through this before," Garden said.

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Reach the writer at 402-473-2657 or rjohnson@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSRileyJohnson.

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